Tales of the Underground Railroad are deeply entrenched within the 19th century history and folklore of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Helping runaway slaves was illegal prior to the Civil War with stiff fines levied upon anyone who was caught doing so.

Among these conductors of the mythical railway was Elijah Heath as an avowed abolitionist actively involved in helping slaves escape northward. In 1834, two runaway slaves were lodged in the Brookville jail for overnight safekeeping by their owners. Mr. Heath, with the assistance of the jailor, provided tools that enabled the prisoners to file the lock from their cell and escape. His complicity was eventually discovered and a federal court imposed a fine of $2000.00, a very hefty sum in a county where the average wage then averaged $16.00 per month. To escape payment it was reported that he conveyed his properties and other financial holdings to others until he was finally able to negotiate a settlement and reduced fine.
In 1901 Dr. C. M. Matson began a renovation project of his residence at 64 Pickering Street and as reported by the Jefferson Democrat on 6/6/1902) discovered of a passageway, nearly bricked up, about 2 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet high that led to a room about 8 Feet Square which he attributed to having been used by Judge Heath in what was then his residence in activities associated with the Underground Railroad in Brookville.

During June 2000, the Jefferson County Historical Society began an archaeological exploration of a remote passageway and associated chambers located beneath this house under the direction of Kenneth Burkett with the purpose of establishing a correlation with the Underground Railroad.
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Built in 1831, Heath’s original two story frame house measured only 16.5 feet deep by 31 feet long was set on a rough stone foundation with hand hewn floor beams and joists supported by a series of multiple low stone pillars. Located directly beneath the house was a stone lined chamber built to serve as a root cellar which was the only hiding place where Heath could have held runaways in the house. To the rear of the house was an unattached springhouse built of red brick and probably a wood roof.

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Original Floor Plan

Heath sold the house in 1846 and it had many owners prior to John and Susan Yeaney, probably completed a major addition sometime prior to 1890. This expansion doubled the house depth and now enclosed the well under the house accessed from the kitchen by stairs and included a narrow 2 foot wide brick lined passageway connecting the earlier root celler and remained the same until the 1901 Matson addition again nearly doubled the size of the house.


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Excavating well


Heath sold the house in 1846 and it had many owners prior to John and Susan Yeaney, probably completed a major addition sometime prior to 1890. This expansion doubled the house depth and now enclosed the well under the house accessed from the kitchen by stairs and included a narrow 2 foot wide brick lined passageway connecting the earlier root celler and remained the same until the 1901 Matson addition again nearly doubled the size of the house.
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1869 Construction

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1901 Expansion


We’ll never really know if Judge Heath in fact hid slaves in this house. Interestingly, the archaeological evidence supports an abnormal use of the West Chamber, which at the lowest level contained only artifacts classified as household or personal instead of the expected quantities of fragmented crockery, canning jars or other items often associated with long-term food storage. While sparse, these items do possibly point to the chambers early utilization for other purposes which could include a secrete hide-away used to harbor fugitive slaves. Remember these people were travelling light without many personal items.

The other part of this story is that Heath also owned a farm and part of a gristmill and sawmill near Summerville whch seems much more plausible that slaves could be more easily transported to and from there unseen and routed through Corsica to Sigel and northward to freedom.

This project was developed by the Jefferson County History Center, in partnership with Historic Brookville Inc. and the Brookville Area Chamber of Commerce. Funding for this project has been provided through grants made possible by the Jefferson County Hotel Tax Committee, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Lumber Heritage Region, and Pennsylvania Great Outdoors